EMS Proceedings and Other Publications

Translating Pierre Schaeffer: Symbolism, Literature and Music

John Dack

Lansdown Centre for Electronic Arts
Middlesex University


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It is perhaps a truism that the ‘perfect’ translation from one language to another is an unattainable goal. Finding exact correspondences between terms in different languages is fraught with difficulties and ultimately doomed to failure. Each word the translator selects is situated within the network of language and its position is in immediate proximity to multiple synonyms. Many of them could be justifiably considered as substitutes and those which are rejected do not disappear but remain in the background, stubbornly refusing to give ground to the favoured word. If, during the process of revision (and what translation is not in a constant state of revision?) the persistence of one of these rejected words is rewarded and it is deemed preferable to the original choice, all connections are reconfigured and the consequences of this new term ripple through the entire text. Nevertheless, despite the inadequacies of translated texts there is no alternative.

Electroacoustic music, like all specialist art forms, has its own terminology. Unsurprisingly, many terms are shared with the music of traditional Western culture, others originate in acoustics, philosophy, information science or psychology. The electroacoustic medium, by the very nature of how its practices and theories interact, presents a critique of many fundamental musical concepts. ‘Instrument’, ‘expression’, ‘gesture’ are only three examples of such concepts where translation and interpretation within, as well as between, languages is required. Furthermore, the fundamentally important tasks of classification and description of sounds should include terms derived from the human experience of interacting with sound sources as well as acknowledging the disruption of physical causality caused by electroacoustic music. Thus, any discourse surrounding the medium, whether it concerns composition, analysis or aesthetics demands a vocabulary that is clear, consistent and commensurate with the subject under discussion.

Given the importance of these aforementioned issues, the absence of English translations of Pierre Schaeffer’s writings is most regrettable. His vast output deals with every aspect of the medium and provides an invaluable resource for formulating a terminology and a conceptual framework with which electroacoustic music can be discussed in a critical, reflective manner. Pierre Schaeffer ‘invented’ musique concrète. One could argue that the attributive use of the adjective ‘concrète’ implies a philosophical register, thus encapsulating so many of the problematic issues surrounding electroacoustic music. Schaeffer’s writing is both subtle and intelligent. His books include the accounts of his early experiences in creating musique concrète mediated by the technology of post-war France (A la Recherche d’une Musique Concrète, 1952). Discovery and experimentation by studio practice are the hallmarks of this period and we can detect Schaeffer’s gradual comprehension of how a new theory could be derived from the acousmatic situation. (Compare this book with the utopian proclamations of serial composers who saw the studio as a solution to the musical impasse with which they were confronted.) Another of Schaeffer’s books is his ‘treatise’ outlining his generalized ‘solfège’ and his ‘Programme de la Recherche Musicale’ (Traité des Objets Musicaux, 1966). Both of these works make use of vocabulary rooted in post-Romantic French thought. Indeed, Schaeffer’s writings and many of his aesthetic premises are informed by the philosophy and the literature of both the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries. These influences can be detected in his writings. Therefore, the terminology he employs (and which must somehow be rendered into English) is particularly significant. These sources must be acknowledged in translation if the uniquely Schaefferian style and subtext are to be maintained.

With my colleague (Christine North an ex-Senior Lecturer in French language and literature at Middlesex University) I am currently engaged in translating ‘A la Recherche d’une Musique Concrète’ and Michel Chion’s excellent exegesis of Schaefferian thought: ‘Guide des Objets Sonores’. If accepted for EMS06, my talk would describe the particular problems we have encountered in translating Schaeffer’s writings and would focus on two main areas of concern. The first is the necessity of retaining the philosophical/literary allusions expressed in many passages in ‘A la Recherche d’une Musique Concrète’ (the symbolist reference in the title is surely no coincidence). The second is the scrupulous attention needed to translate certain key terms into English. Examples are: ‘facture’, ‘timbre’, ‘concrète’, ‘abstrait’, ‘entretien’, ‘allure’... Schaeffer, as a writer was acutely aware of the significance of these terms and both etymology and cultural contexts must be carefully examined and, if appropriate, reproduced. I hope my talk will contribute to a wider understanding of Schaeffer’s contribution to the continuing evolution of electroacoustic music. He was an intellectual in the true sense of the word: we need him now more than ever.

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